New book in Italy recalls exploits of WW II heroJanuary 12th, 2010 - 12:28 pm ICT by IANS
Verona (Italy), Jan 12 (IANS/AKI) Giorgio Perlasca was an Italian hero who saved the lives of thousands of Jews in Hungary during World War II. But few of his countrymen had ever heard of him when he died in 1992.
Now a new book to be published in Italy this week not only sheds light on Perlasca’s wartime achievements, but raises questions about why he never gained much recognition at home, while being lauded in Israel, Spain, Hungary and the US.
The book entitled “Giorgio Perlasca: Un Italiano Scomodo” (Giorgio Perlasca: An annoying Italian) is based on interviews conducted by Australian journalist and author Dalbert Hallenstein shortly before Perlasca’s death at the age of 81.
Perlasca, a former Fascist who fought in the Spanish Civil War, posed as the Spanish consul-general to Hungary in 1944 and 1945 under the name of Jorge Perlasca. He used his position to help hide, feed and protect Jews in Budapest.
“He was an incredibly impressive person, the most impressive person I have ever interviewed,” Hallenstein told Adnkronos International (AKI) in an interview.
Hallenstein, who has lived in Italy for more than 20 years, wrote the book with his Italian collaborator, Carlotta Zavattiero.
In the book the authors document Perlasca’s life in Budapest, his dangerous masquerade as a Spanish diplomat and the many courageous actions he took to save the lives of at least 5,200 people.
“He was probably protecting a lot more,” Hallenstein told AKI. “He wasn’t someone who boasted.”
In fact Perlasca himself told Hallenstein he had letters of protection approved during the Nazi occupation for at least 5,200 people but he may have saved many others from deportation or death during the Holocaust.
“In reality I think the number of people under our protection was much higher because one letter could provide for five individuals,” Perlasca told the author.
In one moving account, Perlasca said in December 1944 he had heard the Jewish ghetto which housed around 70,000 people was to be burnt down and its inhabitants exterminated.
A month later, just before the massacre was about to take place, he claimed to have had a two-hour talk in which he successfully convinced Erno Vajna, then commander in chief of Budapest’s Hungarian Nazis, to change his mind and save the inhabitants of the ghetto.
“Perlasca’s advantage was that he was ‘representing’ a Fascist state, Spain,” he said.
After the war Perlasca returned to a life of obscurity. As a former Fascist his wartime achievements attracted little attention in Italy until 1990 when a television documentary was made about him.
“He was quite bitter about that,” said Hallenstein. “He was given a medal (from the Italians) and informed he had to pay for it.”
Despite a brief appointment with then Italian president Francesco Cossiga at the Quirinale palace in Rome, Perlasca believed he was the victim of official indifference.
“He felt that he never got the recognition he deserved,” said Hallenstein. “He had been through hell in war.”
“Not only were the German Nazis appalling but the Hungarian Nazis were equally ferocious.”
Hallenstein said although Perlasca was a former Fascist he never supported anti-Semitism and even before the war many of his friends were Jews.
“By the time he was helping Jews he was no longer a paid up fascist,” Hallenstein said. “After his experience in Spain, he was fed up with the alliance with Hitler.
“When he realised the full impact of the racial laws against the Jews in Italy for him it was totally incomprehensible.”
Hallenstein, an Australian Jew whose family migrated from Germany in the 1840s, has published several books in Italy and lives in the northern city of Verona.
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